Thursday, 30 April 2015

Chapter 34: Anuradhapuram

They reached Anuradhapuram even as the sun was setting and the sight of the fortified city took his breath away. Many people had described this city to him and he had imagined it in his mind’s eye as well, but nothing could compare to the vision that was unfolding in front of him. The high walls of the fort were higher than any city walls that he had seen so far. Inside the walls, there were countless palaces, mansions, stupas and monasteries built to dwarf a man with their gargantuan size.

Vandiya Devan was astonished to see them all encompassed within a single city walls! Anuradhapuram is indeed a wondrous city! It can’t be compared with any other city that he had seen so far; Kanchipuram, Thanjavur or Pazhaiarai. The great cities of Pataputra during King Ashoka and the ancient city of Ujjain during the reign of King Vikramadithya and drowned city of Kaveri Pattinam during the Karikala Vallavan’s golden reign might be the only cities that could stand tall beside this.
As they neared the huge city walls, the throng of people entering it grew large. The native people Elangai, people of Tamil origin, monks, groups of women and children were seen moving towards city in great enthusiasm. The entire atmosphere was electrifying and many in the crowd looked at the Prince and his companions and started pointing out. Noting this, the Prince signalled his friends to follow him and and moved towards the woods that bordered the city walls. They waited silently in the thick woods while the crowd of people passed them by.

“The horses have come a long way. Let them rest awhile. We can enter the city later, when it is dark,”

They dismounted from their horses and sat down on the large rocks that were littered in the woods.

“What is happening in this city today? Why are so many people coming here?”

“The city of Anuradhapuram is hosting one of the biggest festivals celebrated in Elangai,”

“And I thought that there was a war happening in Elangai, instead I find only festivals being celebrated,” said Vandiya Devan cheekily.

“Didn’t you tell me about the Shri Jayanthi festival being celebrated in Pazhaiarai?”

“Yes I did but Pazhaiarai is in Chola Kingdom, while Anuradhapuram is in Elangai,”

“That’s right. Sundara Cholar reigns over the Chola Kingdom while his chosen lord rules over Elangai,”

“But there is a war happening in Elangai and there are enemies still around,”

“Our enemies are very far away. What would these people do about it? The war will happen only amidst our soldiers and Mahindan’s army. The people of this kingdom cannot be blamed for the foolish actions of their cowardly king. Therefore they will celebrate their festivals unhindered, while we will battle their forces far away from here. Thirumalai! What do you say?”

“Prince! You have enemies here who are hiding in the mountains while in your homeland there are those who conspire behind your back. I think that the Prince ought to stay here and destroy his enemies, while conducting festivals for these people,”

“That is ridiculous. If these conspirators are more dangerous than the enemies here, then the Prince ought be in Chola land to expose and punish them. Great warriors ought to be in places where great danger lurks,”

“Now that is beyond ridiculous. Courage and foolhardiness are very different things. If you truly believe that great warriors ought to be in places where danger lurks, then why did you escape and come here?”

“Enough. Please do not start a war here,” said the Prince.

They entered the city silently after the darkness had enveloped like a thick blanket. There was no restriction for entry at the fort and the soldiers stood aside watching them silently.

The throngs of crowd stood in the streets of Anuradhapuram and the festive air was electrifying. Many in the crowd shouted ‘Sadhu! Sadhu!’ while the others responded in kind. Vandiya Devan also noted that many monasteries and mansions lay in a dilapidated condition while some have been rebuilt. This led him to wonder about the Prince’s strange behaviour towards the people had conquered. Why is he so benevolent to the people here?

For more thousand years, the Kings of Elangai have been interfering in the affairs of their Kingdom by helping their sworn enemies the Pandyas. No one would fault the Prince for destroying this capital city by razing it to the ground. But he did not do that. Instead he is courting the good will of the people, he had conquered and is rebuilding their city and if that’s not enough he is permitting them to celebrate their traditional festivals.

He felt that the Prince must have an ulterior motive to be so benevolent to the people of Elangai and then out of nowhere a germ of thought grew. What if the Prince wanted to rule this Kingdom on his own? He has no right to the ancient throne of Cholas with his elder brother being the heir apparent and his uncle Madhuranthakan wanting to ascend it. That’s why he wants to establish an independent kingdom on his own in Elangai. And what’s going to stop this Prince from becoming a King? That’s why that Kudanthai Jodhidhar compared the Prince to Dhruv Nakshatram (Pole Star) and didn’t he say that those who believe in him would never be disappointed? After reaching this conclusion, Vandiya Devan was very happy that he was with the Prince after so many adventures and mishaps.

Soon they were standing outside a dilapidated palace. Dismounting from their horses they looked around and found that the palace was in a secluded region of the city.  The Prince went near the palace gates and clapped his hand thrice and almost like magic, a door opened for them. The Prince went towards the door and soon was climbing the stairs to the upper portions of the palace despite the darkness. When Vandiya Devan turned around to see the fate of their horses, the Prince said, “The horses know the way,” and took his hand to drag him up the stairs. After climbing the stairs in the dark, they entered the inner most rooms of the palace where oil lamps were glittering in the dark.

“We need to be careful here. This is the Palace of King Mahasenar and these rooms probably belonged to his queens. Who knows he might even come here in his spirit form?”

Ruins of Mahasenar's Palace today

“Who is Mahasenar?” asked Vandiya Devan.

“King Mahasenar ruled over Elangai almost 600 years ago. He was a very good and benevolent king and the people were very happy under his rule. They believe that he watches his Kingdom, even today as a ghost. They leave clothes for him on the trees here so that he doesn’t get cold in the night. After he died, no one lives in his palace out of respect to him,”
Mahasenar's Palace
But there were servants to look after their needs that night in the palace. They had a refreshing bath and partook their night meal before joining the Prince in the uppermost balcony that overlooked the city.

“Ayya! Didn’t that Buddha’s statue ask you come somewhere at midnight?”

“We have time. The moon has just risen. We can leave when the moon touches the pinnacle of that Dagaba (Stupa),” said the Prince and pointed the Stupa that stood near the palace. They were originally called as ‘Dadugarbam’ but with the passage of time, they were now called ‘Dagaba’.

“Why did they build everything so big?” asked Vandiya Devan.

“Earlier the Kings wanted to tell the people that Lord Buddha was very big. The kings who came later wanted to prove to the people that they were greater than Buddha himself. Hence they tried to outdo themselves by building bigger palaces,”

Suddenly they heard sounds of a huge procession marching through the road outside the Palace. Hundreds of decorated elephants stood out clearly among the lakhs of people holding fire lights.

Surprised to see such a huge procession, Vandiya Devan asked the Prince, “What is this? It looks like an army ready to invade!”

“No. This is one of the most important festivals celebrated in Elangai – the Perahera Festival.”

As the procession neared their Palace, Vandiya Devan’s astonishment increased. Never in his life had he seen such a grand spectacle of pomp and piety.

The elephants came first, richly decorated in gold and silk, steadily walking in a formation, trumpeting proudly. Among the thirty elephants that walked on, there was one in the center that was regal in appearance and more richly decorated than the others. On its back, it carried an ornate box studded with precious gems. It also carried a royal umbrella signifying its importance. People carrying decorative lamps and firelights walked along with the elephants while numerous Buddha Bikshus (monks) came bearing white feathered fans.
Perahara Festival Celebrated Today
Click here to learn more about it.

Behind the elephants came a huge crowd of people wearing different costumes and dancing rhythmically to the clanging of bells and drums. Many of them played the hand drums while the others moved forward dancing their way through the procession. Vandiya Devan was fascinated by their dance as he compared it with yet another dance that he had seen many days ago at Kadambur but found that Devaralan’s performance couldn’t match the enthusiasm and the vigour of these dancers.
Dancers of Perahara Festival

A few hundred dancers spiritedly spiralled themselves forward and threw themselves up in the air with such ease that one might suspect them to be boneless. The pomp and pageantry of the festival was such that two pairs of eyes were not enough to drink it in! The shouts and encouragement of the crowd and the chiming music of the pipes made the festival more enjoyable for Vandiya Devan to watch.

After the procession moved another battalion of thirty elephants richly decorated, came escorting yet another royal elephant bearing an ornate gem studded box on its back and royal umbrella guarding it. Yet another procession of dancers dressed as Hindu Gods, Lord Indra, Rati, Manmadhan, Shiva, Parvathi and many more Gods followed.

“How is this possible? How did Lord Shiva come here?” asked Vandiya Devan.

“There was once a King called Gajabahu and he brought Lord Shiva to this island Kingdom and since then he has been here,”

“Veera Vaishnaverey! Did you see that? Have you finally realized who the bigger God is?” And before he could finish the question, few more elephants came by followed by dancers dressed as Garuda bearing Lord Vishnu. As they passed by dancing and cheering, the Vaishnavan turned triumphantly towards Vandiya Devan and said, “You see my boy, even Maha Vishnu has come here,”

Next came dancers dressed like soldiers bearing arms and spears dancing a vigorous war dance unlike any they have seen. With jingling bells in their legs and hands their dance was alternatively robust and graceful. Vandiya Devan who was fascinated by the festival asked the Prince about its history.

The island kingdom of Elangai and Southern Kings were not always at war. There was a time when they were friends and bound by marriage. King Gajabahu and the Chera King of those times Cheran Sengottavan were bound by friendship and when the Elangai King visited him once he witnessed the pomp and pageantry of Kannagi festival celebrated to venerate women for their chastity. Fascinated by these festivals, Gajabahu stayed on to witness the other festivals that were celebrated for other Gods – Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu, Karthikeya, Durga Parameshwari etc. Later when the Chera King came on a visit to Elangai Gajabahu venerated these Gods at a single festival that rivaled Sengottavan’s pageantry. When the people of Elangai rejoiced and participated in these festival with great enthusiasm he decreed that this festival would be held every year. Lord Buddha holds a special place in the festival and would be venerated first among the Gods though.

“But I didn’t see the Gods anywhere in this procession,”

“Didn’t you see the decorated elephants carrying an ornate box studded with gems?”
Elephants carrying ornate boxes bearing the relics of the God

“Yes. I saw. Have they locked the Gods inside that? Are they afraid that they will fly across the sea, back to their homes?”

Ponniyin Selvar laughed at his comment and said, “No. That’s not so. The first elephant that came with the box had a tooth of Lord Buddha. It is one of the most sacred and priceless relics protected by the monasteries of this Kingdom.”

Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka

“What did the other boxes have?” asked Vandiya Devan.

“Since they couldn’t find the tooth of Lord Shiva, Vishnu, Murugan and Kannagi, they have kept the divine jewels that these Gods wore in the boxes and have mounted them on the elephants,”

Vandiya Devan thought for a while and then said, “Aha! If Periya Pazhuvetarayar had come leading the army…”

Just then the last of the procession passed by the streets clanging the bells and beating the drums noisily and the Prince said, “It will be midnight soon. Let us leave now,”

They came downstairs onto the streets started walking in the opposite direction of the procession that had left. The streets were deserted as they walked through them and soon there were near a lake. Silent ripples of water made small waves even as the moon shone brightly upon it. They neared the lake stood for a while watching the water.

Near the lake lay many pillars and ruins of a fountain shaped like a lion’s mouth.

Vandiya Devan tried to remember the Buddha statue that they had seen on their way to Anuradhapuram. There was a row of lotus buds arranged below the statue. The Prince had counted the number of buds as twelve. That seemed to indicate the hour of the meeting and since they were buds, it probably meant night. He also remembered a small vessel with the face of a lion engraved in it. That probably referred to this Lion’s lake.

All this is fine and good what are we here for? Who could have asked the Prince to come here? Who knew what dangers could lurk for him here? He had forbidden them from bringing their arms. Could this perchance be romantic tryst?

Vandiya Devan’s thoughts took wings across the sea to Pazhaiarai and his mind’s eye could see Princess Kundavai and Princess Vanathi. He thought that he should speak to the Prince and learn more about whom they will be meeting today.

“Ayya! This place looks like an old palace garden,”

“You are right. Thousands of years ago, there was a beautiful garden here overlooking the Palace of King Dushtagamanu. Look there! You will see some portions of the Palace standing amidst the ruins,”
Statue of King Dutthagamani (Dushtagamnu) 
Vandiya Devan looked at the place where the Prince had pointed out and said, “They might be private chambers of the queen who knows, those royal women might even have bathed in these waters every day,”

“A very strange thing happened in this garden during the time of King Dushtagamanu. The King had a son name Saali and he was wandering in these pleasure gardens one day, when he chanced upon a beautiful maiden. She was watering the plants in the garden and the Prince fell madly in love with her. But she was a Chandala (a girl belonging to the lowest caste) and her name was Asokamala. The Prince refused to listen to reason and resolutely declared that he would marry her, despite his father’s threats to disinherit him. But the Prince was very stubborn and he refused the crown and the throne, just so that he could marry that girl.  Would any other Prince in this world have the courage to sacrifice a throne, just to satisfy his heart’s desire?”

When the Prince spoke thus, Vandiya Devan was reminded of yet another girl who had lost her heart to him. Was the Prince thinking of Samudra Kumari when he recounted the tale of love?

Even while he was thinking about how to ask about that, something strange happened there. There was a stone seat near the wall behind the fountain curved big enough to seat two people. Suddenly a light appeared in the farthest corner of the seat and soon a Buddha Bikshu (monk) appeared bearing a lamp in his hands.

Gaping at this sight with great astonishment, Vandiya Devan wondered what would happen next.

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Volume 1 - New Flood